A longtime Maine resident with prostate cancer was the only person to end their life using the state’s new death with dignity law last year, according to a new report.
The death with dignity law, which allows terminally ill patients to end their own lives by requesting medication from a doctor, passed the Maine Legislature with close votes last year after previous unsuccessful attempts. It went into effect in September after Gov. Janet Mills signed it into law.
A report that the state is required to compile and present to the Legislature every March lists the individual’s death. The report, which was issued last week after the Legislature’s adjournment in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, covers the period of Sept. 19 to Dec. 31, 2019. Future reports are expected to cover calendar year periods.
Physicians are required to report when patients use the law’s provisions to end their lives.
The first resident to use the law’s provisions was over the age of 65, according to the April 28 report, and self-administered a cocktail of drugs to end their life. The report does not give the location of the individual but says they had a college degree. It says the person was prescribed digoxin, diazepam, morphine sulfate and amitriptyline.
State Rep. Patty Hymanson, the York Democrat who sponsored the legislation last year, said she did not have any expectations on how many people would seek a life-ending medication after the law took effect. But she expected more people may consider the option as more physicians and patients become comfortable with the idea.
“That would be the expectation, because it’s what has happened in every other state,” she said.
States with similar assisted dying laws see relatively few people use them. Vermont, which enacted its law in 2013, reported 52 residents participated in the law between May 31, 2013 and June 30, 2017. In Oregon, 170 people used medications to end their lives in 2019 and 1,657 people have participated in the law since its enactment in 1998.
Valerie Lovelace, executive director of Maine Death with Dignity, noted the state did not include the total number of prescriptions written, which could give better insight into how much interest there is in using the law.
But she said she was “encouraged” to hear someone had been able to use the law almost as soon as it was implemented, noting other states, like New Jersey, have had access challenges.
She said she still hears from people trying to find physicians who will participate in the law. “It’s probably the biggest stumbling block, when a provider doesn’t take what I call a ‘neutral position,’” she said. “It can be quite challenging, because it can affect a whole region of Maine.”
Hospitals in Maine didn’t allow physicians to participate in the law’s provisions immediately.
The Portland-based MaineHeath hospital system signed on before other large Maine health care systems in allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending medications. Since then, Brewer-based Northern Light Health has allowed some doctors to prescribe the medications, while Augusta-based MaineGeneral Health said the coronavirus pandemic put its policy planning on hold.
It’s unclear exactly how many physicians are willing to prescribe the life-ending medications.
Northern Light formally adopted a policy allowing doctors to prescribe them in late March after developing a policy over the course of several months, according to spokesperson Suzanne Spruce.
She did not share the exact policy but said “most providers” are allowed to participate, except those at Northern Light Mercy Hospital, which is a Catholic hospital, and the Aroostook House of Comfort hospice house.
MaineGeneral spokesperson Joy McKenna said the system had made “significant progress” in pulling together its formal policy before the pandemic hit. It is still prohibiting use of the law for now.
MaineHealth said it would allow practitioners to participate if they wanted to when the law went into effect, but did not have a formal policy in place until the beginning of the year.